Virginia Water, England
Give Ernie Els the chance of winning a million and he seems to raise his game. For the second time in three weeks, Els pocketed that figure by winning the HSBC World Match Play Championship. This time the currency was pounds rather than dollars, which is all the better for Els.
The £1 million is approximately $1.8 million – golf’s richest first-place award.
Els defeated England’s Lee Westwood, 2 and 1, in the 36-hole final to set a World Match Play record of six victories. The South African broke out of a three-way tie for most victories with countryman Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros. In 10 career World Match Play appearances, Els has won more than $5.25 million.
“Obviously no tournament has ever gone like that for me, ever,” said Els, who won the event for the third consecutive year, after also winning three in a row from 1994-96. “At least I’ve got one record on Gary Player. He’s got eight majors and that’s a long way for me, but I’ve got him on this one.”
The victory was Els’ second in three tournaments, following his victory in the World Golf Championships-American Express Championship in Ireland. Not bad for a guy who recently spent some time wondering where he had gone wrong this season.
“Three weeks ago I was complaining about all kinds of stuff and now I’ve won twice in three weeks,” Els said. “I’m definitely eating my words at the moment. It’s turning out to be a great season.”
Els staved off challenges from Scott Drummond, Angel Cabrera and Padraig Harrington on the way to his record victory. Westwood beat British Open champion Todd Hamilton and U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen and Spain’s Miguel Jimenez on the way to the final.
Els won on his 35th birthday, and in a familiar place. Els owns a house on the 16th hole at Wentworth’s West course, and he knows the layout as well as any.
“Six wins and I’m 35,” he said. “Hopefully I will keep playing. Now that I’ve got the record I might as well really build it up.”
The tournament failed to attract some of golf’s bigger names. Thirteen players turned invitations to the Match Play, including Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Chris DiMarco and Sergio Garcia.
Garcia’s snub was particularly irksome for Match Play officials because he played in the Turespana Mallorca Classic, which also was held last week. But Garcia proved he made a good decision by winning the tournament.
World No. 1 Vijay Singh did show up, however, but was upset in the first round by European Ryder Cup captain Bernhard Langer.
With Singh dispensed, and the others not on hand, Els waltzed to victory.